Scene turns: Firming up a story’s “mushy middle”

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This week, I “finalized” my outline for my novel, charting out the various beats my story will take as it winds from beginning to end.

(I say “finalize” because I consider this a kind of road map, but am hopeful a few detours will present themselves as I write, making the story deeper and more interesting.)

As the spine of the story slowly started taking shape, I employed the time-honour tradition of scene analysis to toughen up my story. Scene analysis basically consists of asking each beat a couple questions:

  • what’s happening in this scene?
  • who wants what?
  • what’s really happening in this scene?
  • what’s the emotional shift of the scene?
  • how does the scene turn?

Answering those questions often felt as difficult as the outlining itself.

What’s happening seemed obvious, but even that question caused me to collapse a couple beats into one, after realizing that not enough was happening to call it a scene on its own. Looking for ways of putting my characters’ goals in conflict was a challenge. How could I make things more difficult; how could I put two characters at odds in my scenes?

Getting at subtext felt even trickier – there were a few times when I found myself typing a pat answer. (“The character wants to truly understand his father.” Yawn. Bleech.)

The emotional shift of the scene was sometimes difficult – it reminded me that I needed to build in room for characters to react. And not just the characters involved in the action on the page, but to think through who else might be impacted and how they might act or react and where I should build in additional scenes to accommodate that reaction.

But the turns. Oh boy. I found that the most difficult to identify.

Turns are a Robert McKee concept, I believe. I mean, I think storytellers have long understood the need to modulate the intensity of their stories in order to ratchet up tension and drama, but it seems McKee gave them a name and a certain kind of importance. He argues that for the sake of compelling storytelling, scenes should go from positive to negative and vice versa or positive to even more positive or negative to even more negative. They can also slide around a little, going from positive to negative to positive again, or improving from negative to positive, then backsliding to negative.

The point is, the pitch of the scene has to move. That’s what keeps our story moving. And that’s tougher than it sounds.

Consider a scene in which two characters bake bread while talking about their teenaged sons. One talks about her worry that her son, Bobby, spends too much time in his room. The other woman empathizes and says she barely ever sees her son Frank: he’s never home.

First, what’s really happening here? Two women are baking bread. What do they want? I suspect they want reassurance. What’s really happening? I’d say both women are confessing something – we just don’t necessarily know what yet. What’s the emotional shift of the scene? There isn’t one.

And what’s the turn?

The scene could perhaps be labeled as starting positively – two women working together while chatting about their sons – but does it really change in its tone or tenor? They don’t really disclose anything to turn the scene – we might have a little niggling in our brain, but that’s not enough.

How to introduce an emotional shift and, therefore, a turn? I’d recommend first thinking about collapsing this conversation into another scene – not enough happens here.

On the other hand, think about what’s coming in your story to figure out what could be added. If we’re about to learn that the reason why Frank’s never home is because he’s being radicalized by white supremacists, how can we foreshadow that to end the scene on a more ominous, creepy tone?

If we’re about to learn that Bobby is being bullied and contemplating suicide, we should have this scene work in service of that. It’s not enough to have the women exchange bland or empty pleasantries. I might be tempted to have one of the women cut herself, to introduce a bit of subtext. This sudden violence makes the scene more urgent but also allows us to see more clearly how one of the women is being affected by her son’s absence – she’s losing focus and concentration. It’s literally hurting her.

How the women respond builds more to the scene. Suppose the cut woman quietly lifts her cut thumb to her mouth and never lets on that she’s injured herself. Imagine if the other woman, talking about something seemingly mundane, fails to notice. Imagine if that same woman makes a huge deal out of the cut, insisting that they go to the hospital? Imagine if the cut woman crumples to the floor, fainting at the sight of her own blood.

In my own outline, I found it difficult to decide whether a scene was starting on a neutral or negative note – which tells you a little something about the darkness of my project! I found a lot of my scenes were moving from negative to even more negative. When I looked over the outline, I realized there needed to be far more variation, no only in the turns – a few more moments of levity, a little more breathing space – but also in the way that those turns came about. Too often it was informational.

Mystery and suspense novels are the clearest places to see turns in action, but as you’re reading, challenge yourself at the end of a particularly gripping passage to stop, re-read and identify the turns. What made it gripping? Were the turns obvious or subtle? Could you easily answer the five questions above for this passage?

For more on turns, see:

(Photo courtesy of Unsplash)

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